7 ways to support working college students

A recent piece for the American Association of University Professors by higher ed experts Laura W. Perna and Taylor K. Odle looks at “the reality of working college students” and suggests ways to maximize the benefits and minimize the harm of paid employment. Working, the authors say, can have positive outcomes beyond providing needed funds—it also can help students develop relationships and knowledge. However, working also can have negative implications, especially for students from underrepresented groups.

The authors outline several circumstances that “can undermine the mission of higher education.” Among undergraduates who are employed—43 percent of all full-time students and 81 percent of part-time students—many work more than the 15-20 hours per week range that is recommended for better academic outcomes. Students from low-income and underserved backgrounds are more likely to work while enrolled, and for longer hours, than their higher-income peers.

Employment exceeding 20 hours per week is less likely among full-time students at four-year institutions than at two-year institutions, which are often less resourced and enroll larger percentages of low-income students. Working more than 20 hours per week negatively affects academic performance, slows credit hour accumulation, increases time to degree completion, and reduces the likelihood of student retention. Juggling work and academic demands can be especially stressful for single student parents, a disproportionate share of whom are Black and Native American women.

Lower-income students who work are less likely to have jobs or paid internships that will advance their desired careers, and few obtain managerial positions, according to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce.

Related: Low-income students face steeper challenges in combining work and learning >

Strategies to maximize benefits, minimize drawbacks

Saying these circumstances indicate that “that employment during college is serving to reinforce inequity in higher education opportunity, experiences, and outcomes,” Perna and Odle call for public policy solutions and structural changes at U.S. colleges and universities.

Specifically, the authors recommended seven ways to lower the likelihood that students will need to work more than 20 hours per week.

  1. Reduce unmet financial need. Increased funding from local, state, and federal policymakers can help keep tuition low. Colleges and universities, meanwhile, can maximize need-based grant aid, limit merit-based grant aid, and control costs.

  2. Ensure financial aid calculations don’t penalize students who work for pay. The authors assert that students should work to cover part of the Expected Family Contribution and unexpected costs, but that their income should not “influenc[e] the availability of resources to pay the costs needed to stay enrolled.”

  3. Educate students about federal loans and work. High schools and colleges should invest in financial counseling for students from underserved backgrounds to help them complete or correct their knowledge of federal loans and employment options so they can make individually appropriate decisions.

  4. Ensure that students apply for and receive need-based grant aid. Help students understand financial aid information and navigate the FAFSA verification process in order to obtain need-based aid for which they qualify.

  5. Increase the availability of on-campus and major-related employment. There’s evidence that students who find work on-campus have better academic outcomes than those who work off-campus. Perna and Odle also call on colleges to invest in opportunities that help students build career-related skills and knowledge. The Department of Education recently launched an experimental initiative that waives certain restrictions on Federal Work Study funds at 190 participating institutions to allow colleges to direct funds toward student employment in private and public sector jobs related to their academic interests, writes Inside Higher Ed.

  6. Offer working students high-quality academic and other supports. Colleges can help increase working student success by offering night courses, weekend courses, online courses, planning tools, virtual advising, child-care options, and weekend office hours.

  7. Recognize differences in students’ needs and experiences. Colleges, the authors say, should distinguish between the needs of adult, working, part-time students and dependent, working, full-time students. Adult students often benefit from flexible learning options, affordable transit, employment partnership agreements, access to health care, and credit-awarding mechanisms for work and prior experiences.

Topics in this story

Next Up

Study finds open educational resources are cost-effective

The largest-ever study of the impact of open educational resources has found that free, digital learning materials save students money at a reasonable cost to colleges.